Monthly Archives: February 2008

Passage, Connie Willis

Bantam, 2001, 780 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58051-5

Sometimes, I get the feeling that I’m the only SF fan on the face of the planet who’s not a hundred-and-ten percent fan of Connie Willis’ work. Whenever I admit doubts about her stories, people spit at me, dogs bite my ankles and even babies stare in my direction with disgust.

Well, okay, maybe not, but part of Willis’ skill is that she makes even the haters hate themselves. After all, isn’t she the smartest, the funniest, the best? Her story certainly have charm to spare: every word, every sentence is carefully put in place to make us dance like puppets to the tune she’s singing. Her stories are often funny on the page, but they’re developed with serious rigor. A major novel like Passage is a superb showcase for those skills.

Just take a look at the premise: It’s a romantic comedy in which a psychologist studies patients experiencing Near-Death Experiences. Major cognitive dissonance right there, and that’s even before reading a single line of the novel.

Even a few chapters in, the usual Willis trademarks are obvious: The frazzled protagonist struck in an amusing nightmare of overlapping complications; the copious amount of pop-cultural references; the amusing succession of slapstick comedy, hilarious exasperation and romantic entanglements. The plot takes time to emerge, but it does with increasing darkness, as the protagonist teams up with a researcher who has found a way to safely induce NDEs to volunteers. But something makes the volunteers run away, and soon it’s up to the protagonist to submit herself to her own study… with spectacular results.

Objectively, it’s far from being a bad book: The compelling nature of Willis’ prose is as sharp as it’s ever been, and the comic complications keep piling up at a frenzied pace. The SF elements of the story are initially slight, but gradually acquire more and more heft. The many characters are leisurely developed and eventually…

…eventually, we come to realize that the novel’s 780 pages are its own worst problem. There is no economy to the telling, and the repetitive nature of some complications start to take its toll. The story hangs in mid-air for a long time, asking far too much indulgence for missed phone calls, silly character decisions and an obstinate refusal to proceed forward. I often complain that hundreds of pages could be cut from some novels, but it’s not an exaggeration in Passage‘s case: A novel half as long could have done wonders for the story’s impact.

But perhaps there’s a reason to the lethargy created by this pile of words: Willis seldom shies away from emotional sucker-punches, and there’s a shocking twist a hundred pages from the end that’s both surprising yet foreshadowed by dozens of small hints. It leads to a conclusion that will play really well with some, and remind a self-hating minority of doubters that blatant emotional manipulation remains one of Willis’ most accomplished strength as a writer.

I have no doubt that my reaction to the novel is idiosyncratic and that it will go over really well with other readers: Willis’ bibliography is crammed with works (Doomsday Book, “Even the Queen” , “All my Darling Daughters”, etc.) that appeal to a certain segment of the readership while leaving others free to cry “emotional manipulation!” between fits of self-doubts. Passage thus fits in an enviable lineage: it’s the typical mixture of farce and tragedy, skillfully put together but not impervious to a cock-eyed “oh, really?” reaction. I suspect that I will appreciate this novel a lot more once I’m past my terrible thirties.

But even confused haters will recognize that Passage is a powerful piece of work: risky, humane, brilliant and well-researched. The length is a problem, but maybe only to those who already have reservations about the novel as a whole: Others may see it as much more of a good thing. One thing is for sure: Passage doesn’t make it any easier to be critical of Willis’ work.

Jumper, Steven Gould

Tor, 1992 (2008 reprint), 344 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-7653-5769-4

One of the few good things about the big-screen Hollywwod JUMPER movie is how it brought back in wide circulation Steven Gould’s original Jumper, a much-lauded Young-Adult SF novel that long proved elusive to casual buyers.

Now that the novel is once more widely available in a tie-in edition, the usual games can begin:

  • How much of the novel was faithfully adapted? (Not much.)
  • Do the changes improve upon the original? (Sometimes, maybe.)
  • Do the changes betray the artistic intent of the original story? (Indeed.)
  • Is the book better than the movie? (Yup, but you already knew that.)

Little surprise here.

But while it’s fun and haughty for book-lovers to dismiss the movie adaptation and make of the original novel some kind of flawless gem, it’s more interesting to note that if the film is a piece of hard-to-like nonsense, the novel also has a number of significant flaws. Some of the movie’s most intriguing elements do work better than the book, at least in presenting a plot framework that avoids unforgivable coincidences.

(Also: while it’s unfair to the author to speak of his novel by looking at it through the lenses of the movie, that’s the only way it’s going to be read for a few years. These are the realities of the cultural marketplace, and they’re included in the royalties earned by the tie-in edition.)

But let’s start at the beginning: Seconds away from being beaten by his abusive father, teenage narrator David Rice discovers that he can teleport to locations he can picture in his mind. His first jump takes him back to the local public library (which is also the case in the film, but never explained as “the protagonist’s first thought of a safe haven”) where he immediately starts plotting his escape from a life that has nothing to offer him. It’s a rough process: Gould puts his protagonist through tough decisions and harrowing situations as he experiments in order to find the limits of his powers.

A major thematic deviation from the film takes place as David robs a bank to sustain himself: In the film, it’s a largely entertaining act with little moral consequences for the hedonistic protagonist; in the book, it’s an unpleasant but necessary action that causes even more trouble for David.

This widening ethical gap only grows larger when the main plots are set in motion. In the film, a secret group of anti-jumper “paladins” hunt down David, drawing him in an underworld of battling jumpers and paladins. In the movie, David gets a personal reason to hunt down airplane hijackers and fight terrorists.

Surprisingly, it’s tough to decide which plot-line is better: The book’s terrorist thread is precipitated by a coincidence so unlikely that it’s initially hard to accept that the author would use it to move forward the second half of the book. The gradual transformation of David into an anti-terrorist vigilante is equally hard to take seriously: at the rate airplane hijacking take place in the novel, few major airlines would be able to operate. Some of the pre-Internet details (such as using the services of a clipping agency) are now quaintly amusing, but there’s no denying that there are other reasons why this 1992 novel hasn’t aged so well in a post-9/11 world. The movie’s clichéd jumpers-versus-paladins storyline at least has the merit of moving the action along with family intrigue and a decent amount of mystery that is, alas, left to be revealed in an increasingly less-desirable sequel.

But if Gould’s original vision had one undeniable advantage, it’s in the thematic richness and maturity revealed by David’s quest for vengeance. There are some very nice portraits of anger and how it’s transferred over from covert to overt targets. David is not a happy young man and his gift for teleportation only papers over the problem for a time, until it grows so overwhelming that he’s tempted to go much too far. Despite the tortured plot points, the dramatic arc of the novel is completely satisfying, whereas the movie’s protagonist doesn’t even have morals or ethics to guide him. And there’s no comparison between the twin romantic plot threads in book versus movie, not when the protagonist of the film is such a repellent bastard.

Despite some of the film’s most hair-raising action sequences, the book definitely keeps an edge when comes the time to consider the smaller details of the action. Informed by the merciless standards of genre Science Fiction, the novel goes in intricate detail to describe the mechanics and consequences of teleportation: it helps that David is smart and able to improvise in order to put all chances on his side. Meanwhile, the film operates without consistency or elementary logic, contradicting and breaking its own rules. The two may not be closely related, but there are things in the movie that won’t make sense until you read the book. (And there are things that won’t make sense no matter what.)

But anyone who’s made it this far in the review without being interested by any book-to-movie comparison can take comfort in the fact that Jumper, even with its plotting flaws, is a truly enjoyable Young-Adult Science Fiction novel. Its heart is at the right place, the writing is instantly compelling from the very first page, and if aspects of it aren’t as credible now, it remains a small gem. Now that it’s not that hard to find a copy, do yourself a favor and have a look.

The Princes of the Golden Cage, Nathalie Mallet

Night Shade, 2007, 298 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-1-59780-090-7

Here’s my obligatory disclaimer: I really wanted to enjoy this book. I first met Nathalie Mallet at Vancouver’s V-Con convention in October 2007, but really started talking to her at the following month’s World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga. Like me, Mallet is a fluently bilingual French-Canadian living outside Quebec. Quite unlike me, she now has a novel on sale from an American publisher: The Princes of the Golden Cage, free copies of which were available by the boxful to WFC attendees.

It’s a noteworthy book for several reasons, the most intriguing of which being that this is Night Shade’s first mass-market paperback publication. Traditionally known as a specialty trade paperback house, Night Shade now aims for a bigger market with this new format, and it speaks much of their confidence in the novel to have selected it as their first title in this new audience-friendly format.

But you can imagine my anxious hope when The Princes of the Golden Cage finally ended in the pole position of my reading stack: What if I didn’t enjoy the book? After all, fantasy isn’t my genre of predilection: a lot of it bores me, when I’m not being quietly infuriated by the clichés of the genre.

Since I’m more likely to stay silent than to be overly critical of friends and good acquaintances, you can guess by the existence of this review that I found quite a number of things to like about the book.

The first obvious distinction is that this fantasy is set in a different mold, partly inspired by Arabian mythology and partly shaped by the demands of palace intrigue. The hero of the tale, Prince Amir, is the son of the Sultan, but that’s not much of a distinction given where he lives: an imperial palace where more than a hundred of the Sultan’s sons subtly compete for the title of heir while they await their father’s death. You can imagine the posturing, but Amir has opted out of the race: by focusing on academic pursuits, he hopes to stand aside from the melee and live a quiet life. Alas, events soon run against him: When his brothers start dying in mysterious, perhaps occult circumstances, he is summoned and put in charge of discovering the murderer. So much for keeping a low profile.

Further complications arise when he befriends another young man who seems to enjoy an unusual amount of freedom. Then there’s princess Eva, already betrothed and yet so irresistible…

It’s a fantasy, it’s a romance, it’s an adventure, it’s a mystery, it’s a big tangled web of intrigue and it’s almost immediately compelling. Prince Amir is a fine nebbish protagonist and while he’s not much of a hero at first (I wondered at times if the author wasn’t trying to pull off a BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA inversion of sidekick/hero roles), he’s instantly likable and earns his own little triumphs. The twists and counter-twists piles up almost too neatly with the metronome precision of a tight movie script, but the overly-complicated ending ties it all together with a bow and a nice flourish.

This being said, it’s regrettable that Night Shade goofed up its new paperback production process and let an unacceptable number of copy-editing mistakes in the book: The number of curious word substitutions clearly shows that a spell-checked manuscript isn’t necessarily free of errors. (Yes, I’m deeply aware of the irony in pointing this out on a review site that riddled with such mistakes. I know, I know.)

I may not be the ideal or most dispassionate reader for this book, but I enjoyed it more than I thought and almost as much as I had hoped for. It may have a few first-novel rough edges (and the imperfect copy-editing makes me wonder if it wasn’t rushed in production), but I rarely enjoy fantasy novels as much as this one. A sequel, The King’s Daughter is already scheduled for mid-2008: does that mean I’ll have to take a chance and look in that “fantasy” section of the bookstore?

Monster Island, David Wellington

Thunder’s Mouth, 2006, 282 pages, US$13.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-56025-850-6

The recent revival of written zombie horror fiction has its leading lights: Brian Keene, Max Brooks and David Wellington. Monster Island was a sensation even from its beginning as a free serial on Wellington’s blog: The short punchy chapters, consciously written for maximum cliffhanging impact, drew in readers, raised Wellington’s profile and eventually led to a book publication deal for the book. (The online version is still freely available if you’re curious.)

Four years later, as the media landscape has latched on zombies as their New Favorite Monster, is Monster Island still worth a read? Does it keep its interest at a time where books, video games, and even blogs post like it’s the end of the world, is Monster Island a charming curiosity of historical value or a horror novel that is destined to endure?

While it’s still too early to judge its historical posterity, Monster Island still manage to hold its own in 2008. Its audience may not be as hungry for zombie stories as it once was (zombie fatigue may be setting in as even the local cineplex has its zombie-movie-of-the-month club), but the novel itself is a punchy, modern take on zombie tropes with enough winks, chills and screams to keep it all interesting.

The novel barely deigns to describe the zombie apocalypse event itself: it begins a few weeks later, as an African warlord is running out of HIV medicine. The narrator, an ex-UN official reluctantly working for her, thinks he knows where useful medicine may still be found: the United Nations HQ medical clinic in New York. Getting there, of course, isn’t simple: The Hudson is choked with dead bodies, and the island of Manhattan is overrun by zombies. Even the heavily-armed teenage girls traveling protecting the narrator are outnumbered. But there aren’t just zombies on the island: there are bizarrely-organized human survivors, an unusually intelligent zombie leader and a bog mummy with bigger plans.

Wellington’s contribution to the zombie mythology is that it’s oxygen deprivation that makes zombies the dumb schmucks that they are in fiction. If, say, a clever medical student deliberately induced death while hooked up to an oxygen machine, then the resulting zombie would keep most of its mental faculties. Presto: one capable antagonist! There are further complications, of course: Wellington can’t resist stepping beyond the zombies to suggest a far grander mythology at play, one with much bigger implications than the good-old undead-coming-back-to-life stuff.

But the meat of the tale, so to speak, is in the way the narrator’s team encounters and fights the zombies in Manhattan. Here’s where Wellington has the most fun, with advanced weaponry, bulletproof zombies (revived SWAT officers with protective armor), lively confrontation and horror-show encounters with a group of humans led by a self-proclaimed president with more clichés than good sense. Wellington’s a darkly funny writer, and some of Monster Island is tough to digest until one realizes that entire sequences are designed to be macabrely amusing.

Given the novel’s fast pacing and scattershot approach, it’s not a surprise if some elements don’t work as well, or if it stretches the bound of plausibility even for a zombie novel. The bloggish origins of the novel show in how this could have been a tighter novel with a bit more editorial attention and consistency-checking to make sure that the rules of the story remained consistent from beginning to end. The gradual shift away from the zombie genre into a more general horror framework may disappoint some readers.

But the energy of the story and its fast pace do a lot to keep it from becoming dull. As we wait for the zombie craze to crest and go away, the stories with the best chances of surviving are those that will offer the best storytelling experience, not necessarily the most consistent genre element or the most radical innovations. Monster Island is still worth a read, and I give it good chances that this will still be true in a few years from now.

[March and April 2008: Alas, Wellington’s two follow-up novels, prequel Monster Nation and sequel Monster Planet, get sillier and more difficult to enjoy. While Monster Nation (which does describe and explain the zombie apocalypse) has its share of gruesomely enjoyable moments, its conclusion gets increasingly less plausible thanks to increasing doses of mysticism, up to an including a final yadda-yadda about the origins of life, anti-life or whatever. Monster Planet continues in this vein, offering an increasing diversity of critters all jockeying for world domination until is becomes obvious why the book wasn’t simply titled Zombie Planet. Unfortunately, Wellington gets more frustrating the deeper he buries himself in metaphysical nonsense: he’s never as enjoyable as when he’s writing in SF/techno-thriller mode (some of the most fascinating passage of the books are those in which he describes the official military response) and therein lies a suggestion for his next few efforts.]

Killswitch, Joel Shepherd

Pyr, 2007, 450 pages, C$17.00 tpb, ISBN 978-1-59102-598-6

Killswitch is the third novel in Joel Shepherd’s “Cassandra Kresnov” series, after Crossover and Breakaway. While I read those first two novels with some interest, I could never find enough things to say about them to justify a full-length review. Worse: those two novels seemed both repetitive and strangely fake in their treatment of their heroine’s problems.

Before explaining why Killswitch is a stronger, more noteworthy novel, let’s review the series so far: In a future where humanity has spread to a number of star systems, the major political lines are between the Federation and the League –two generic names that more or less describe how blandly Kresnov’s feels about them. Kresnov may begin the novel looking like an apolitical party-hard code-slinger, but the truth is more complex: she’s a sophisticated combat android trying to forget her past and fit in the relatively well-functioning multicultural society of Callay. Sadly, things don’t end up working like they should, and a kidnapping by covert operatives end up rousing the interest of Callay’s protection forces. Cassandra may just want to live simply, but her new masters won’t let her shirk away from what she’s been trained for, especially when she proves so devastatingly effective at protecting the president from enemy attacks. The matter of her sentience and legal status having been settled over and over again, she eventually (albeit reluctantly) finds a place as part of Callay’s security forces.

The problem of the first two books aren’t obvious from the previous plot summary, but they stem from them: This is a pretty ordinary set of plot points. Beautiful-but-deadly military androids are fast approaching cliché, and the question of whether a well-functioning robot has rights equal to those of a human is the kind of classic SF question that has long worn out its novelty value. Breakaway seemed to rehash the exact same issues as Crossover did while bringing nothing new to them, either in theme or in plot. While Shepherd’s writing is competent and even exciting when tackling action sequences, it’s hardly spectacular otherwise and doesn’t do much to compensate for the novels’ pedestrian plots. To that one must add the often-unbelievable way Shepherd writes about his heroine: somehow, I doubt that hot lusty females spend as much time thinking about how hot and sex-obsessed they are as males seem to think they do. The barely-repressed lust expressed by Kesnov’s best friend Vanessa smacks more of male wish-fulfillment than actual character development.

But things are different with Killswitch. The plot takes another direction as people from Kresnov’s past come back to cause problems. The political issues from the previous novels are further developed, but this time both Kresnov and the readers care a bit more about who’s right or wrong beyond the obvious statement that terrorism is baaad. It helps that the threat to Kresnov’s continued existence is far more ominous –how could it be otherwise with a kill-switch implanted deep in her neural system? Even the characters seem more fleshed-out, with Kresnov’s relationships deepening. The romantic tension with her best friend is finally discussed, and our heroine earns a very satisfying epilogue. The enviable nature of Callay’s well-adjusted multicultural society continues to be a highlight of the series: Shepherd (an Australian, one notes) paints such a compelling portrait of the planet that I’m tempted to emigrate there despite the risks presented by the series’ ever-ongoing carnival of high-speed pursuits, gun-fights and orbital combat.

The obvious caveat is that readers will have to slog through two repetitive, sometimes indifferent novels before getting some return on their investment with Killswitch. I think it’s worth it, but readers with less interest in politics (or with more attuned gender-wonkery detectors) may balk earlier in the series. As the Cassandra Kresnov sequence seems open-ended, I’m more curious than ever to find out what else Shepherd has in store for his protagonist now that he’s dealt with most of the obvious questions.

Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 2004, 358 pages, C$37.00 hc, ISBN 0-553-80311-5

I have already written about my constant admiration of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work before, and things won’t change with this review of Forty Signs of Rain, a unique novel of science-fiction that conventionally shouldn’t work as well as it does, yet holds its own as a superbly entertaining work of fiction.

Robinson, of course, rarely settles for conventional narratives. So when he decides to tackle the subject of global warming (after first glancing at the subject in Blue Mars), he does so by using the best-informed protagonists he could think of: the scientists at work in Washington at the intersection of science and politics. The novel begins as global warming is starting to have its first catastrophic impacts. Meanwhile, a young iconoclastic scientist named Frank Vanderwal is fed up with the bureaucracy and cautiousness of the National Science Foundation where he is finishing his one-year term. His colleague, Anne Quibbler, is busy balancing the demands of motherhood with those of a career even as her husband, Charlie Quibbler, is a stay-at-home dad who moonlights as a scientific advisor to an influent senator. (This senator, Phil Chase, is carried over from Antarctica, but so slightly as to be imperceptible to those who haven’t read Robinson’s previous book.)

These three viewpoint on the issue having been established in all of their rock-climbing, breast-feeding, telecommuting banality, Robinson does not immediately jumps to the chase. Nearly half of Forty Signs of Rain passes before the first shapes of the overarching plot appear. This is a novel of characters, of good ordinary people engaged in science and all of its messy complexity. The inner workings of the NSF are carefully described (usually by Frank, who can’t stand it any more), while the interface between science and politics is probed. This is not the time for heroics, but for careful action. This is also science-fiction as it’s too rarely written: as an exploration of the facets of science as it’s conducted today in the real world.

In doing so, Robinson also slyly attacks one of the hoariest clichés of bad SF: the mad scientist. The characters in Forty Signs of Rain are morally outstanding citizens who feel a moral and ethical need to contribute to society by their expertise. Their goal is a better world for all; their means are a conscience and the elements of the scientific method. With this uplifting novel, Robinson reclaims some much-needed credibility for the SF label in its purest sense, even if the science-fictional elements of the book are slight and subtle.

Besides a few gadgets here and there, only the ending of the book stands as a bit of extrapolation. Yet the biggest irony of Forty Signs of Rain does happens late in the book, as the climax of the story is set in rain-drenched Washington, as a flood of biblical proportions cover the entire capital in meters of sludge and water. What was pure Science Fiction in 2004 turned out to be the unpleasant portent of the real-life flooding of New Orleans barely a year later. Validation of Robinson’s carefully researched novel never seemed more ominous.

But these thematic elements would be wasted without Robinson’s usually delightful prose, which delves so deep into the character’s inner landscape as to reflect their emotional states. The writing occasionally takes on a quality halfway between internal monologue and typical third-person narration, blending a poetry of science with mundane everyday concerns. Just wait until you read the scene where a squirming child interrupts a head-to-head meeting with the president.

Ultimately, it’s this blend of domesticity, sweeping thematic concerns and good old-fashioned political issues that makes Forty Signs of Rain such an unlikely page-turner. For a book in which little actually happens, it’s a delight-a-page experience. Fans of Robinson’s brainier previous work will be absolutely fulfilled by this latest work. Best of all, though, is the feeling that the real story is about to begin in the follow-up, Fifty Degrees Below.

Vantage Point (2008)

(In theaters, February 2008) What an odd film: The stunning trailer promised a Rashomon-type assassination thriller with twisty levels of truth. The reality is a lot sloppier: While Vantage Point does offer multiple successive perspective on the same set of events, the impact never goes beyond that of a curious way to present a fairly straightforward thriller. The twists aren’t as impressive as you may think (the identity of a traitor can be guessed early on) and many elements feel forced in order to manipulate a reaction from the audience. The first few minutes are clunky from tons of hesitant exposition, while some elements of the plot never work like they should. There’s an interesting vibe to some of the material (the deliberately dovish president, the nebulous nature of the terrorists, the faint vibe that this may not turn out to be OK), but there’s also a sense that the film isn’t running on all cylinders. Ironically, it’s when the film drops the multiple-viewpoints pretense that it really kicks in high gear: The car chase through the streets of Valencia is good fun (a grim Dennis Quaid really sells the intensity of the pursuit), and the climax does actually work in a certain fashion. But the result seldom rises above its gimmicky flash: the twists are there for the sake of the twists, and if there’s a certain cleverness to it all, Vantage Point still feels as if it’s missing an important chunk.

The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

(In theaters, February 2008) With the Potter series in full money-making bloom, studios are racing to cash on other children’s series. The results may often be dire (even with the best of source material, such as The Golden Compass), but Spiderwick manages to be a good-enough example of the form. As three siblings discover the secrets surrounding their new upstate New York house, they realize that there’s an invisible world out there, and that it’s not entirely friendly. Elements of classic fairy mythology are well-used, but it’s the generally unobjectionable script that holds everything together along with capable kid actors and satisfying special effects. The early few minutes aren’t particularly pleasant as the rebellious boy is shown to be well, rebellious, but he soon rises to the occasion presented by the discovery of the house’s secrets. While the plot is generally predictable (including its underwhelming ending), it’s not blatantly idiotic and even manages to hold on to a certain pleasant quality. I particularly enjoyed the sub-thematic content about books and the knowledge they represent. While this won’t become a classic, it’s going to hold up as a pleasant family film that the adults may even like.

Le scaphandre et le papillon [The Diving Bell And The Butterfly] (2007)

(In theaters, February 2008) I really didn’t want to see this film: Stories of people overcoming physical handicaps to find peace, happiness and Oscar nominations aren’t high on my list of priorities, but when a film gets four such nominations, well, I can always follow the crowd and make an effort. So when I say that the film managed to overcome my own preconceptions, you can figure out that it’s something special. Adapted from the true story of a man almost completely paralyzed by a stroke and left with the control of only one eye, Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon takes an intensely subjective approach to its subject at first. Thanks to focus issues and staccato movements meant to represent human eye motion, the film sticks the viewer inside the protagonist’s head as he has to figure out how to communicate with the world again. It’s a painful, sometimes horrifying process, minutely detailed while the basics for communications are re-established in far more than the blink of an eye. (I deny anyone not to hyperventilate during one particular scene in which sewing needles are involved.) It’s a brilliant piece of cinema, and it more than establishes the protagonist’s situation before we are allowed, once again, objective camera angles. I don’t think anyone could have expected a better adaptation of nigh-impossible source material. There’s some biting humor through it all, though the film becomes increasingly predictable and conventional the longer it went on. But the result is exceptional (if not always pleasant, at least seldom preachy) and it has a good chance to stick in memory long after the rest of the Oscar-nominated slate of 2007 has faded in memory.

The Hidden Family, Charles Stross

Tor, 2005, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31347-2

Readers who thought that Charles Stross’ fantasy debut The Family Trade was heavily in clever details, plot twists and smart characters are about to get even more good stuff for their money with this follow-up: The Hidden Family piles on more complications, more developments and even more worlds to explore.

This fantasy series’s premise is that a genetic trait in some humans allow them to travel between parallel worlds, at the price of terrible headaches. The first to discover this ability were inhabitants of another world, one that, by the early twenty-first century, is still stuck in medieval times. Using our world as a source of high technology, those families were able to consolidate their power base thanks to illegal trading on behalf of cartels in our world. (Think about a parallel world without border guards…) One of the several wild cards in this scheme is the sudden re-appearance of one Miriam Beckstein, a long-lost relative who was unknowingly raised in our world as an orphan, eventually becoming a high-tech/business journalist before discovering her gifts and being coerced in the family business. The Family Trade delivered a lot of back-story and intrigue in a short time and The Hidden Family picks off right where the previous book ended, not an accidental choice given how both books were conceived as a while unit before being split for publication.

The first big twist of this installment, as hinted in the first volume, is that there is another world out there. Not just another America, roughly technologically equivalent to Victorian England, but another family of world-walkers waging war on the clans known to Miriam’s family. Our heroine is quick to seize upon this opportunity and see the potential profit margins in enabling technological transfers between more worlds. There are complications, of course: The regime at the other end is a totalitarian monarchy that wouldn’t take lightly to Miriam’s revolutionary ideas. And Miriam can’t go directly from here to there, but has to set up a transfer point in her family’s intermediate universe.

As if those new developments weren’t enough, Miriam’s power base in her family is still very much in jeopardy: Her secret love affair with a cousin is already material for blackmail, her relatives can’t stand her lack of manners, and even the senior members of her family are contemplating whether she’s bringing in more trouble than she’s worth. Palace intrigue, plots and counter-plots all unfold in complex patterns, even as a key member of Miriam’s family business plans treason and defection…

Fortunately, Stross’ crackling prose not only keeps all of those development as clear as possible, it makes reading the book an engrossing experience. This is one of those “just one more chapter” novels that hypnotize readers until the last page, leaving them wanting even more.

Plot-wise, this is almost as busy as the previous installment, and the ideas just keep on piling up. The interactions between the world are rich in implications: the doppelgangering of locations in dual worlds, for instance, is an idea that constantly reveals new facets. The economic implications of world-walking are cogently explored (even if only conceptually as of yet) while the realities of a renaissance-era world-view constantly rub Miriam the wrong way, offering a subtle counterpoint to the triumphant medievalism so prevalent in classical fantasy.

The Hidden Family is just the second installment in an ongoing series, so readers shouldn’t be surprised to find out that the end of this book only offers a respite of sorts for Miriam, just as other things go catastrophically wrong. There’s plenty of material for future plot threads here, and yet other possibilities remain unexplored for now, though I don’t doubt that Stross is busy preparing how best to integrate them in future installments.

Jumper (2008)

(In theaters, February 2008) Twice during this film, I thought I was hearing the opening strains of favorite songs, only to be disappointed with lame generic pop-rock. Much of the same holds true for Jumper as a film: Sometimes hinting at greatness, but constantly disappointing with lackluster execution. The premise itself is intriguing, setting up a young man with the power of teleportation, and then a larger mythology of “jumpers” and “paladins”. But little of it feels satisfying: In what I’m guessing is an effort to set up future sequels, few elements are developed, and whatever is explained doesn’t feel as if it fits together. (I’m thinking of genetic lines, mostly) But this mushiness also holds true on most other levels: Hayden Christiansen speaks with marbles in his mouth and his clumsy romantic scenes with Generic Girlfriend cause horrible flashbacks to Attack Of The Clones. Samuel L. Jackson is fabulous as usual, but the film doesn’t seem to understand what to do with him. The same also goes for the film’s dazzling variety of locations, which ultimately feels underwhelming and under-used: There are some poor plot choices for teleportation locations… heck, there are poor plot choices everywhere. (Remind me: Do they have to have seen the location they want to go to?) I’m still not convinced that director Doug Liman can tell a story cleanly without shaking his camera and overcutting his action scenes for no good reasons at all. There are some action scene here and there that should pop with kinetic excitement, but their cross-cutting silliness simply sucks away most of their energy. It doesn’t help that the script is so thin, and that it’s strangely empty of either fun or humor. I hope that some of the missing answers are in the book, but in the meantime the film is a disappointing example of wholly average entertainment. [One day later: Wow, the book is something else entirely.]

In Bruges (2008)

(In theaters, February 2008) The problem with black comedies is that often, the darkness can snuff out the comedy. That’s what increasingly happens here, as the hilarious story of a pair of hit men waiting out an assignment in the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges is interrupted by violent flashbacks and gory deaths. As a comedy, In Bruges initially works well: There’s a nice absurdity to the misadventures of the hit men (Collin Farrel as an ADD-addled firebrand and Brendan Gleeson as an older veteran), the dialogs are fantastic and the unpredictable nature of the plotting is engrossing. This isn’t about real-world assassins, but an idealized, Pulp Fiction-infused ionic representation of murdering men with honor. In Bruges may not be a hilarious film, but it’s steadily amusing: racist midgets, anti-Bruges kvetching, a profane boss (Ralph Fiennes, wonderful), musings on the morality of killing bottled-armed people… it adds up. But what also adds up is an increasingly dark vein of violent developments, up to an including graphic deaths. While there’s an elegance to the way even smaller lines get their payoffs, there are also a few loose pieces in the mix: The girlfriend seems wasted once her plot function of providing a character with a gun is accomplished. The partially-blinded guy seemed destined for a bigger part. Even the ending, as ambiguous as it is, doesn’t completely satisfy. On the other hand, I don’t think that the city of Bruges will ever get a better promotional film.

The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly

Little Brown, 2005, 404 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-73493-X

Once again, it’s time for Michael Connelly to set aside protagonist Harry Bosch in favor of another character. Such “off-Bosch” novels are often the chance for Connelly to stretch a few writing muscles and try something different. The Lincoln Lawyer stands solidly in this tradition: Not only is it narrated by a very different character, but it’s also Connelly’s first outright legal thriller. It doesn’t spend much time in the courtrooms, but it’s all about the titular Lincoln lawyer, a defense attorney who’s forced to rediscover his moral compass.

Mickey Haller may be a new narrator, but he’s not completely unknown to those who have followed the Bosch series in detail. Although fleetingly mentioned in The Black Ice as Harry Bosch’s half-brother, this connection never comes into play in this novel (and the links to the rest of the Connellyverse are so tenuous as to be invisible), so don’t expect even a cameo by Connelly’s taciturn detective.

Not that any reader will wish for anything once The Lincoln Lawyer kicks into gear. Like most of Connelly’s novels so far, this is a ferocious page-turner, a perfect piece of entertainment designed to mesmerize its audience even as it slickly delivers the expected thrills.

The beginning may be slow, but it’s definitely intriguing: As Haller struggles with the demands of life as a lawyer in urban-sprawled Los Angeles (he conducts most of his business from the back-seat of his chauffeured car, hence the title of the book), readers will get a taste for the reality of his work. As in other Connelly novels, we get a heavy dose of jargon, common attitudes and specialized knowledge: Haller’s usual clients are of modest means, and he effortlessly outlines the daily routine of a lawyer trying to do the best with what he’s got. By the time a well-off man named Louis Rouet asks for legal representation in an ugly assault case, we’re fully aware how badly Haller can use a “franchise client” who will pay steady bills for a long time.

But Haller’s enthusiasm deflates once he begins to suspect his client’s innocence: “There is no client as scary as an innocent man” is the novel’s (fictional) epitaph, and that’s because nothing short of a not-guilty plea can be acceptable for an innocent: The usual options of “fair deals” with the prosecution become unavailable to lawyers representing an innocent man, and that’s the nightmare in which Heller finds himself even as rumbles about another innocent man unjustly convicted start echoing from his past.

Typically for Connelly, there are a number of further twists and turns in the tale, which piles on the complications as it plows forward. The procedural charm of Connelly’s prose now deals with the world of defense attorneys rather than LAPD policemen, but the impact is the same. By the time the surprising ending rolls around, Haller has learned as much as the reader, and Connelly emerges from his first legal thriller with honors.

It would be very unlikely to see Haller ride off in the sunset without expecting his return in a future novel. As Bosch himself approaches retirement and Connelly seemingly can’t resist the lure of linking his series, Haller would be a welcome addition to the policeman’s life, especially if the author ends up spending time examining how both half-brothers ended up on dissimilar sides of the law. As a character debut and a first attempt at another form of crime fiction, The Lincoln Lawyer is a remarkable effort, and it promises much more.